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Video: Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s horror relied on a bit of cheating

Video shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript.

2010 video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an obvious candidate for our eventual “best games of the ’10s” list, owing to its revolutionary take on interactive horror. The indie game ushered in a new era of horror gaming, thanks in part to its brief, focused scope and its utter lack of weapons or combat. But how did the designers at Swedish game studio Frictional Games pull off Amnesia’s scariest stuff?

The mouth of madness

In our video interview, Grip talks about how Amnesia came about after the completion of a creepy puzzle-platformer series called Penumbra. That series was built upon a physics system that let players pick up, stack, and contend with objects in the world in order to proceed, and Friction wanted to follow those games with a “good horror” experience, inspired in part by Konami’s Silent Hill series.

The studio’s original thinking for Amnesia revolved around forcing players to survive with a very old-school system of a life bar, but play-testing revealed that this focus either annoyed players or didn’t scare them. The above interview delves a little more into experiments with things like a light-and-dark hiding system and how the game’s “sanity” meter originally worked like a traditional “hit points” counter.

But as the game began taking shape, the team struggled with how to find the right balance so that players would confront the scariest contents no matter how well or badly they played. The solution: “We had basically nothing!”

The power of suggestion

Instead of building a complex solution, the team turned the “sanity meter” into a persistent system that applied no matter how well or poorly a player traversed through the game. Players always saw the sanity meter on the screen, and they saw crazy visual effects fill the screen when that meter dropped to a low number. What’s more, the designers made sure that no matter what path you took in the game, you’d always see the sanity meter drop.

The secret, Grip says, is that “there was no real fail state. And it worked better! We don’t really [tell players] what the consequences are for [losing sanity]. But the player assumes, right, if I lose my mind, I’m not going to be able to play. I might die or be harder to control.” What’s more, Amnesia’s early in-game text outright lies to players by telling them to beware the consequences of a full sanity meter drop.

There are indeed ways to die and restart in the game, owing to the monsters that players must hide from. But the sanity meter’s job is to keep the player off-base and unbalanced rather than to contribute useful information—and going purely by player reaction videos on Youtube (warning: loud swearing!), it works—it works really, really well.

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